His groundbreaking study shows that about one-fifth of youth today are thriving -- highly engaged in activities they love and developing a clear sense of what they want to do with their lives -- but approximately one-fourth are still rudderless, at serious risk of never fulfilling their potential. The largest portion are teetering on the brink, in need of guidance to help them move forward: some are "dabblers" who pursue strings of disconnected interests with no real commitment; others, "dreamers" who have no realistic plans or understanding of what success will require.
What makes the difference? Damon shows that the key ingredient for the highly engaged is that they have developed a clear sense of purpose in their lives that motivates them and gives them direction. Based on in-depth interviews, he takes readers inside the minds of the disengaged and drifting kids and exposes their confusion and anxiety about what they should do with their lives. He then offers compelling portraits of the young people who are thriving and identifies the nine key factors that have made the difference for them, presenting simple but powerful methods that parents and all adults can and must employ in order to cultivate that energized sense of purpose in young people that will launch them on the path to a deeply satisfying and productive life.
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Read an Excerpt
The life prospects of a young person in today's world are far from certain. Only a few decades ago, almost all young people knew by the end of adolescence where they would live, what their occupation would be, and whom they were going to marry. Today, most young people have no answers to these questions well into adulthood. The global economy has increased the opportunities, and pressures, for young people to move far from the communities that they grew up in. Even many of the best-educated will spend years in casual jobs without settling into a permanent line of work and, indeed, the whole notion of a permanent line of work has come into question, as many careers are evolving into a succession of relatively short-term, disconnected jobs. As for establishing their own families, young adults all over the world are deferring or declining marriage. If current trends continue, an increasing share of the youth population will never marry, or may wait until their childbearing years are almost past.1
Some of today's young welcome these changes and the new opportunities they offer. These young people have formulated clear aspirations for their future. They are strongly motivated, full of energy, optimistic, and have created realistic plans to accomplish their ambitions. Confident in themselves, they enjoy exploring the world and testing the limits of their potential. Far from needing any protection or prodding, they almost can't be held back. In a word, they have found a strong sense of purpose to inspire them and provide them with direction.
At the same time, many of their peers are floundering. In the face of the serious choices ahead of them as they move toward adulthood, they feel as though they are drifting or stalled in their personal and social development. A large portion of today's young people are hesitating to make commitments to any of the roles that define adult life, such as parent, worker, spouse, or citizen.
This delayed commitment among the young is taking place today all over the industrial world, from the United States to Japan to Europe. In Italy, to cite one extreme case, it has been reported that the majority of thirty-year-olds still live at home with their parents and are neither married nor fully employed. In the United States, a study of youth in their late teens and early twenties concluded: "Marriage, home, and children are seen by most of them not as achievements to be pursued but as perils to be avoided."2
The British government was the first to officially recognize the growing phenomenon of unoccupied young adults when, in a national report five years ago, it coined the term "Young NEETs" ("Not in Education, Employment, or Training").3 Recently, the Japanese government has reported, with evident alarm, that almost a million of its own youthful population had become NEETs and this in a society long known for its strong intergenerational work ethic. None of these reports has cited any economic slowdown as the problem. The economy in Europe, Asia, the United States, and other parts of the industrial world has been growing rapidly enough to offer plentiful employment opportunities for the young. But many are holding back. Perhaps they are daunted by the uncertainties they face, perhaps they are fearful of perils they perceive in the choices they might make, or perhaps they consider the prospects available to them to be uninspiring and devoid of meaning. The reasons behind their hesitation often seem mysterious to parents and educators, many of whom are becoming concerned that these young people have yet to find the kinds of engagements and commitments that make life fulfilling.
Many parents are also voicing the concern often humorously at first, but less so over time that their progeny may become "boomerangers," returning to their home nests long after they were supposed to have flown away on their own wings. I've come to call this the "How can I get my wonderful daughter to move out of our basement?" question. Of course, not all parents are troubled by seeing their children take some extra time to strike out on their own, and there is a positive side to the story: it does indicate a closeness that has eluded many families in prior decades. These days, grown children feel comfortable staying in their family homes, and they do actually seem to enjoy hanging around their parents and communicating with them much more openly than did people of the boomer generation when they themselves were young.
A bit of light on this matter was shed by a May 2007 Fortune magazine piece on "baby boomers' kids," written delightfully by Nadira Hira, who identifies herself as one of those kids.4 Extolling (correctly) the extraordinary talent, energy, and creativity that mark her cohort of young people, the author makes the case that "all that questioning" that her peers are doing "will lead us to some important answers." In the meantime, the extended period of questioning and self-exploration is delaying that transition to permanent work and a home of their own far beyond that of any prior generation. Hira cites a survey of American college students from 2000 through 2006 showing that almost two thirds of the graduates moved home after college and over half of these stayed for more than a year. She quotes one twenty-eight-year-old (who himself wrote a book on the subject5) as saying: "If we don't like a job, we quit, because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There's no stigma...our moms would love nothing more than to cook our favorite meatloaf." Another young adult, a twenty-four-year-old woman, echoes this sentiment: "I think parents want to feel needed, and it's like, because I'm so independent, they get excited when I ask for a favor."
Now, parental love for children is one of the world's great blessings; and it is true, fortunately, that most parents will gladly do anything to help their children get along. Also, it is unambiguously a good thing that most children feel secure in their expectations that parents will provide for their needs. But I am not convinced that most parents hope to spend their golden years providing basic needs for their children; nor do I believe that this truly would be in the best interests of the children themselves. What is in children's best interests is to find ways to make their own contributions to their families and eventually to the world beyond themselves.
The ultimate problem is not the parent's role in the child's life but rather the child's own personal fulfillment. During the adolescent years, a certain amount of soul-searching and experimentation is healthy. Adolescence is a transitory period of development, a kind of way station on the road to a mature self-identity.6 This formative period of life is said to begin with the onset of puberty and end with a firm commitment to adult social roles, such as those cited earlier: parent, spouse, worker, and citizen.7 During this key time of transition to adulthood, it is sensible for young people to spend time examining themselves, considering their futures, and looking around for the opportunities that best suit their own ambitions and interests. For many young people, an extended period of exploration and reflection during adolescence may be necessary to establish a fulfilling self-identity and a positive direction in life. This is what the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson once described as a constructive "moratorium" from reality. And yes, this "identity formation" task in some cases can take years of postponing choices in order to resolve the task successfully.8
Yet the postponements of many young people today have taken on a troubling set of characteristics, and chief among them is that so many youth do not seem to be moving toward any resolution. Their delay is characterized more by indecision than by motivated reflection, more by confusion than by the pursuit of clear goals, more by ambivalence than by determination. Directionless drift is not a constructive moratorium in either a developmental or a societal sense. Without a sense of direction, opportunities are lost, and doubt and self-absorption can set in. Maladaptive habits are established and adaptive ones are not built. It is not that there is a critical period for the acquisition of a fruitful direction in life. But it is the case that excessive delay beyond the period of readiness creates the serious risk that the young person may give up altogether on the tasks of finding a positive direction, sustaining that direction, and acquiring the skills needed to achieve the directional goals.
Today's young people are well aware that they will need to make a transition from adolescence to adulthood at some point; but for too many of them, this awareness which can be a source of keen anticipation for those who look to their futures with hope triggers a sense of vague foreboding or worse, a debilitating anxiety that can lead to further developmental paralysis. Indeed, extended disengagement from adult social roles is a prescription for anxiety and depression. To remain uncommitted to career, family, and other serious community responsibilities is an untenable position for a young person to settle into. Such disengagement becomes increasingly uncomfortable over time. It cannot continue indefinitely without psychological costs.
I do not wish to suggest that most of today's young are in "deep trouble" or any kind of immediate peril. In fact, the most visible indicators of youth well-being look somewhat better today, or at least not worse, than they did ten or fifteen years ago. In the United States, today's young people are less likely than the young of ten years ago to become pregnant while still teenagers; they are less prone to violence and crime; they are somewhat less vulnerable to the lure of addictive drugs; and they are no more prone to major eating disorders (with the exception of obesity, which is still on the rise among youngsters and adults alike). Most students are staying in school for more years and are attending classes with greater regularity. Students are working harder and learning a bit more, at least judging from the most recent test-score results. Many young people fill their schedules with wholesome activities, from sports to arts to hiking and camping clubs. Although the "problems of youth" that made so many headlines in the United States a decade ago have certainly not all been solved, they have stopped going in the wrong direction, and in many areas there has been gradual and marked progress. Indeed, many young people today are thriving, as I noted at the outset.
But others only appear to be doing well, and far too many seem stuck, rudderless and lacking a sense of what they want to do with their lives. They may be keeping out of trouble and achieving what we ask of them, but actually they are drifting, without a clear sense of direction. They look like they are on track, but they may be only a step away from falling or jumping off the track that they appeared to be on. Many are themselves aware that something is missing from their lives, although often they can articulate their awareness only indirectly, through expressions of anxiety ("so stressed out!"), cynicism ("like I should care?"), or apathy ("Whatever!"). Few people around them know what is bothering these youngsters, except in extreme cases where a failure to thrive of crisis proportions brings the aimlessness unavoidably to light.
What is too often missing not altogether absent but evident only in a minority of today's youth is the kind of wholehearted dedication to an activity or interest that stems from a serious purpose, a purpose that can give meaning and direction to life.
How bad is the problem really? About seven years ago, I began an investigation into what happens when a young person finds (or does not find) purpose in life. From my earlier observations of adolescents and young adults making their way through today's world, I had come to suspect that much of the difference between young people who were thriving and those who were floundering could be explained by whether or not they had found a compelling purpose in a career, in building a family of their own, or in some other way of making a difference in the world. I also suspected that the discontent or anxiety that so many young people were feeling was connected to purposelessness. As I will address in more detail later, a good deal of work in psychology has revealed that there is a powerful link between the pursuit of a positive purpose and life satisfaction.
In my investigation into the role of purpose in young lives, I and my team of researchers have conducted a series of studies that has included surveys and in-depth interviews with adolescents and young adults in several parts of the United States. We have also developed case studies of some young people who have demonstrated truly extraordinary commitments to purpose, many of whom discovered such purpose at an early age. In chapters 3 and 4 of this book, I report highlights from the first of these studies.9 For now, I will simply note that our initial findings reveal a society in which purposefulness among young people is the exception rather than the rule.
In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12-22-year age range express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. The largest portion of those we interviewed almost 60 percent may have engaged in some potentially purposeful activities, or they may have developed some vague aspirations; but they do not have any real commitment to such activities or any realistic plans for pursuing their aspirations. The remaining portion of today's youth population almost a quarter of those we interviewed in the first of our studies express no aspirations at all. In some cases, they claim that they see no point in acquiring any.
Tommy, an eighteen-year-old from Pennsylvania, is one of those who expressed absolutely no sense of purpose when we interviewed him.10 He was halfway through his freshman year in college at the time, and had not yet been at all motivated by anything he had studied in school. Nor did he consider that there was any good reason to drop out. He knew of no better alternatives outside the university, and he had found the schoolwork easy enough. In fact, Tommy said he was quite content to just drift. He complacently conveyed a conviction that things would surely work out one way or another, whether or not he mobilized himself to do anything about it; and, since he had no particular goal in mind, he was indifferent to exactly how his future might take shape.
Tommy's indifference applied to his everyday decisions as well as his broader reflections. On the issue of choosing his academic program, he said, "I don't know what I'm going to take next term. They make you pick some courses. I'll just say 'what the hell' and flip a coin or something." On the question of aspirations, Tommy was quite comfortable with having none: "I don't really have goals for my future. What's the big deal about that? It would be fun to travel. I'd like that, especially if I could get someone to pay for it."
Tommy is one of a number of young people today who express no need for goals or ambitions. Some of these disaffected, like Tommy himself, show little sign of being bothered by their lack of direction. Another boy we interviewed, a seventeen-year-old from New Jersey, embraced his purposelessness in the following manner: "Apathy seems to have worked out well for me.... If you don't care, things don't bother you. So far, just being lazy and letting the chips fall where they may has been all right."
At least for the present, such young people have no complaints about their emotional states and often proclaim that they feel happy enough. But can purposelessness provide a route to happiness, in the way that they seem to assume? Certainly purposelessness can be compatible with hedonism, and many disengaged youngsters do report that they are having a good time. But, as psychologists who have studied happiness in recent years have found, the moments of hedonistic pleasure that disengaged people may experience are short-lived and ultimately empty, especially in comparison with the more enduring and fulfilling types of satisfaction that the psychologist Martin Seligman has called "authentic" happiness.11 And many disengaged youngsters are far from happy, even in the hedonistic sense.
For many disengaged youth, the lack of direction is a good deal more troubling. They report an inner life of anxiety and a sense of feeling trapped in a life that is not under their own control. They feel disappointed in themselves and discouraged by what life has offered them thus far. They despair at the emptiness and meaninglessness of their daily activities.
Ben, age twelve, was already "worried about what I'm going to be when I grow up" when we interviewed him. He told us that he spends most of his time on his schoolwork but takes little satisfaction from it. Most of the time, he says, "I want to go outside and just relax and do nothing at all." Ben's main reason for studying so hard is pressure from his mother, who "thinks that I should just study...she wants me to be the best student of all her friends." In his mother's view, Ben's future lies in learning technical skills in order to qualify for a good job. Ben, on the other hand, loves music and imagines that he would like to become a singer or a dancer someday. For this aspiration, Ben gets no family support: My mom "wants me to have my own choices, but she wants my choices to be math and science." As a result, Ben feels disengaged from his day-to-day activities, which he feels have been thrust upon him by external forces. He complies dutifully but unhappily: "I like acting, singing, those things I really like, but my mom says, 'No, you shouldn't'...I'm locked inside a cage."
Ben has been frustrated by his inability to stake out a direction that he can call his own. He can see that the future his parents have in mind for him will not be meaningful to him, and this realization makes him feel trapped and anxious. Ben may have time to gain support for pursuing his own interests while still in his school years. For other young people, the realization that the paths they are on will not lead to a sense of purpose may take longer. Often those who have failed to find that purpose are surprised when, in their young adult years, they are blindsided by sudden feelings of emptiness and misery as they survey the directions their lives have taken.
Jessica, now twenty-seven, is a young woman who has done everything right in her schooling and early jobs.12 She attended a prestigious independent school and college, was awarded a fellowship to a top graduate program, and received several offers from firms wanting to recruit her. She was something of a star in school and college, athletically as well as academically. Yet Jessica never considered herself to be an intellectual or a dedicated sportswoman. In fact, other than traveling for pleasure or hanging out with her friends, there have been no activities in her life that she has found consistently pleasurable. Although she did well in most of her courses, none of them ever sparked her interest to the extent that she did more than cursory reading about the subject matter in her free time. She exercises regularly because she wants to look good, but she has lost interest in the sports she played; and other than movies she rarely bothers to attend cultural events.
Jessica says that she cannot escape the feeling that "everything I've been doing my whole life has been for someone else my parents, teachers, coaches, everyone but me. And I don't ever want to disappoint them." Worse, despite her obvious talents, she feels inauthentic. "I've been faking it all my life," she once exclaimed. She doubts whether she really knows enough to excel at a complex job; and she is even less certain that any of the occupations she can imagine for herself will hold her interest. As a consequence, she experiences panic spells when thinking about her future. At the present time, she does not feel able to follow up on any of her recent job offers. Instead, she has decided to take some time off to travel until she acquires a firmer fix on where she wants to go in life. Hers is a reasonable decision, but it is accompanied by much painful self-doubt and anxiety.
Jessica lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of those lacking in purpose. She is not damaged in any deep sense but also not on the verge of finding a direction that she feels enthusiastic about. Like many in her cohort, Jessica dwells uneasily in a state of drawn-out anxiety and confusion that shows no sign of ending. "I never really decided that this is what I want to be doing; it just kind of happened," she says. "I think that's the reason I want to get away all the time I never quite feel that I'm where I want to be or should be."
Jessica is disappointed that her past achievements, applauded as they were by her parents and teachers, have not helped her identify a goal or course of action that she really desires. The outcome of her situation is far from certain. She may "find herself" during her self-imposed moratorium; or she may drift from one transient setting to another for the duration of her youth, failing to find lasting meaning in anything she does.
Some of Jessica's peers are in a good deal worse shape. They lack Jessica's record of achievement, her proven talents, and the reliable support from family and friends that Jessica can draw on as she struggles with her frustrations. And studies have shown that many of those young people are suffering from a range of psychological symptoms, stress symptoms that go beyond Jessica's sporadic feelings of panic: sleep disturbances, eating disorders, uncontrolled anger, social isolation, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, and a host of other self-destructive tendencies.
Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College in the United Kingdom, remarked in a recent newspaper column: "Depression and hyper-anxiety among the young at school and university...have reached epidemic proportions. A Harley Street psychiatrist last year reported that he was seeing five distressed children from just one class from a highly academic 'successful' London school. Is it surprising that at university so many find it difficult to cope? Recent U.S. studies show 45% of undergraduates display serious signs of depression. This is madness."13
In a recent book about today's "generation of disconnected and unhappy kids," the clinical psychologist Madeline Levine describes a pattern of inner emptiness that she has observed in the troubled teenagers she treats in her practice. Some of these youngsters exhibit seriously self-destructive behavior for example, one fifteen-year-old girl who actually carved the word "empty" on her left forearm. "Cutting" of this sort has been brought to parents' attention through a good deal of coverage in the media, but fortunately it is still a relatively rare phenomenon. Of particular interest for us here are Levine's observations about the less troubled kids who come to see her with more typical adolescent concerns. "Many of these teens," she writes, "have a notable ability to put up a good front." Yet they complain about feelings of anxiety and emptiness: "they are certainly unhappy." They show little enthusiasm for any of their pursuits, and they have trouble finding pleasure in their daily activities. Some of the phrases that they use to describe their angst include: "being at loose ends," "unhappy for no reason," and, most tellingly, "missing something inside."14
Even among the highest-achieving of this group of adolescents, observers have noticed a puzzling lack of sustained commitment to the activities that have led to their early success. In a recent New York Times story, education writer Laura Pappano chronicled a group of top students she calls "the incredibles," mostly because they have accomplished so much in secondary school that they find college a letdown, with little challenge left to sustain their interest.15 One MIT student responds by spending time on water polo, Frisbee, surfing, and TV.
The author's point was that expectations for students have ratcheted up to such an extent that the brightest students may be achieving too much too soon for their own long-term interests and, what's more, such students eventually pose problems for an educational system that doesn't keep the pressure on once the student reaches the university. She quotes one higher education administrator who comments: "We are pushing kids to do so many things to get in, so what do you do when you get in?"
But I would make a different point: These brilliant students would not be losing their motivation in college if they brought with them a better understanding of what they wanted to accomplish and why. If, during the early years of strenuous effort and high achievement, they had found purposes that went deeper than the grades and awards, they would have hit the ground running when they entered college. They would then have been eager to gain more knowledge and skills in order to help them better accomplish their chosen purposes.
The adverse psychological effects of this aimlessness during the college years are cause for concern. The distress of apparently successful but directionless young people can boil over into self-destructive behavior when it is least expected. In our colleges and universities, legions of high-performing students attempt suicide each year.16 Far too many succeed. In its most recent report on suicide among adolescents and young adults, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented an 8 percent rise in the latest year on record (2004), the largest rise in more than fifteen years.17 Within the halls of higher education, there has been growing concern about suicide risks among students in recent years. Almost invariably, college counselors chalk the problem up to stress caused by the heavy burdens of schoolwork and competition. I am in full sympathy with the concern over desperately unhappy students, but I am unconvinced by the "stress" explanation. Hard work and competition have never broken the spirits of young people, as long as they believe in what they are doing.
In a study that followed seven thousand American teenagers from eighth grade through high school, Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson came to a surprising conclusion: Contrary to popular (or media!) images of hedonistic, fun-crazed youth, most of today's young do have ambitions they would like to achieve. Yet few of them have any real prospect of realizing these ambitions. "Most high school students...," the authors write, "have high ambitions but no clear life plans for reaching them." They are, in the authors' phrase, "motivated but directionless." As a consequence, they become increasingly frustrated, depressed, and alienated. There seems to be some hidden anguish in the misery of the youths that Schneider and Stevenson describe. What's more, the hidden nature of this misery is part of the problem itself; as they observe, many parents seem unaware of the problem, and as I will address more fully later, the authors also point out that "many parents do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their adolescents form plans for their futures."18
A 2005 PBS documentary, Declining by Degrees, documents the disillusionment and disengagement pervasive among university students today.19 The documentary shows students sleeping through classes, shirking their assignments, partying several nights of the week, and in many cases drinking their way through their four-year college "education." The film was meant as a stinging critique of higher education, but the view that it provides of student attitudes is at least as revealing as its view of our university system. The students portrayed are bright and friendly, often with reasonably good academic records (even those who rarely open a book seem to get passing grades or better). From a distance, considering the terrible conditions that people find themselves in around the world, it may be hard to see what these privileged youth find lacking in their lives. Yet something certainly is missing. In the past, some educators have called this missing element "motivation," and I agree that sufficient motivation is indeed lacking. But I would also argue that the core problem is the lack of a source of motivation, the lack of a sense of purpose. In the long run, that lack of purpose can destroy the foundations of a happy and fulfilled life.
Of course, every generation has had young people who have resisted the conventions of adulthood. In a prescient book called The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society (1965), Kenneth Keniston wrote of a group of young college men who, despite their privileged status (they were all Harvard students), had become deeply disaffected from our society. These so-called alienated students expressed cynicism about virtually all mainstream values, social roles, and institutions that they had encountered in the world around them. Although well educated and highly articulate, they had no larger beliefs or life plans. Their alienation, Keniston wrote, was ideological in character: these students had made a conscious, intellectually driven choice to remain uncommitted.
Although The Uncommitted attracted intense interest when it appeared, the young people the book profiled were, as Keniston wrote, "not typical of American youth."20 They were but a sliver of the population. Even among their sophisticated classmates, they stood out as extreme in their intellectualized skepticism about society's misdirections.21 Few of their peers shared their malaise. Although these "uncommitted" students were fascinating to behold (perhaps because they may have seemed like harbingers of things to come), their significance to the broader American society of the time was never clear.
The lack of commitment among the young today is of quite a different sort than that which Keniston described. It has none of the sharp ideological edges that the alienated youth of midcentury America expressed. Today's noncommitment has no personal, social, or political point; it has no focus or objective. In an unintended way, this makes it a purer form of noncommitment, a noncommitment even to noncommitment. It is neither a dedication toward something nor a reaction against something. It is, rather, an absence of something a kind of empty space in a panorama that, in other times and places, has been filled with dynamic activity.
Other researchers have identified this trend but have viewed it more sanguinely than I do, or have put forth different explanations for it. For example, the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett begins his book Emerging Adulthood with an astute observation: "In the past few decades a quiet revolution has taken place for young people in American society, so quiet that it has been noticed only gradually and incompletely." Arnett goes on to argue that in light of the way adolescence has extended so much, we need to designate a new life stage, which he dubs "emerging adulthood": this is the "quiet revolution" that he alludes to.
Arnett's take on the phenomenon is largely optimistic, with no more than a hint of ambivalence: "To be a young American today is to experience both excitement and uncertainty, wide-open possibility and confusion, new freedoms and new fears."22 In Arnett's view, the upside of today's lengthy period of "emergence" is that it provides young adults with an optimal chance to work out a well-planned future, tailored to their own special talents, interests, and desires. But I would argue that this optimism is appropriate for only a minor portion of the youth population. For the rest, increased attention on our part is a more appropriate response.
I also do not think that we are in general pushing youngsters too hard, as some have argued. Madeline Levine puts the blame for the aimlessness of young people on too-high expectations, parental pressure, and family affluence. My own view is that young people thrive on high expectations (I wrote a book on this matter ten years ago),23 and that parents do well to engage attentively with their children. As for affluence, our research has found similar patterns among groups of affluent and nonaffluent youngsters: A small portion of young people in both the affluent and nonaffluent groups are strongly directed and deeply engaged; most in both groups are searching for something positive to give their lives meaning; and a significant minority in each group show little sign of trying to find something worthwhile. So I believe that we must look further than these explanations.
This is where the role of purpose comes in, and we must be concerned because the demoralizing effects of failing to discover a clear and authentic sense of purpose in life can last a long time, even a lifetime.
A few years ago, I met with a group of students who had just started a teacher education program. The group included some recent college graduates. But there were also a number of more mature people as well, students in their thirties or forties. What had brought them here, after what must have been years of doing something else? Why, I wondered, had they taken this new direction in their lives?
After the meeting I spoke with the students and discovered that the older students had dropped out of law, medicine, the military, and business. They had not failed in the eyes of the world. Some had found good jobs in the corporate or professional world. Yet they all had quit, with pretty much the same complaint: they never acquired a sense that they were doing something that really mattered to them. They felt empty and inauthentic. They shared a depressing sense that they were wasting their time on activities that did not reflect their own highest aspirations in life. In short, they felt burned out at an early age. Whatever they had begun had not sustained their enthusiasm for even a small part of their early adulthood, let alone for much of their working lives.
At least the students with whom I spoke had moved on in midlife to identify an interest that might give them a shot at a meaningful pursuit. Perhaps they will find what they are looking for in a teaching career, or perhaps not only time will tell. In other cases that I have encountered, early failures to find personally meaningful work have simmered in a stew of anxious frustration and confusion, leading nowhere. Often it is the people who seem to be most on track who express the most severe misgivings. A thirty-year-old cardiologist recently asked me for advice. In his brief career, this brilliant young man already had acquired a reputation as one of the southeastern United States's top experts in complex surgical heart procedures. Naturally, his services were much in demand. The problem was that he hated his work to such a degree that he could barely get out of bed in the morning. Although he tried to take satisfaction in the life-saving work that he did for his patients, he could not escape the feeling that from early childhood he had always managed his life to please other people. His unhappiness was evident in the restless manner in which he sat and spoke about his dread of a future that might feel to him like the present. When I talked with him, he was on the verge of walking away from his long medical training to search for a job he could find more personally meaningful. He did not have the vaguest idea what that job would be. Yet his discomfort was so great that leaping into the unknown seemed to him a better alternative than staying on his present path.
Contrast this story with one from the PBS documentary I mentioned earlier. Not every student in Declining by Degrees ended up drifting through college or dropping out. One of those who stuck with it was a young woman named Brittany. Like many of the other students the film portrayed, Brittany became discouraged because, she said, "I didn't have anything that kept me wanting to come to campus. I wasn't being challenged, I wasn't really thinking about things...I was just, like, 'I have no idea who I am, what I'm going to do, what I want to do,' it was really alarming." But Brittany got lucky, unlike most students in the documentary. Right before she was about to leave the college, she stumbled into a course in planetary physics, which she took to meet her science requirement. Unexpectedly, she got interested in the subject matter. The instructor noticed her interest (mainly because this interest alone was unusual enough to make her stand out from her peers), and he sat her down for a serious talk. The conversation persuaded Brittany that she might have an aptitude for science, that she might even have a calling for it. When Brittany finished college, she enrolled in a graduate program in planetary physics. "Sometimes," the instructor later mused, "just a little bit of encouragement makes all the difference." But if this is so, why are so many of the other students left to flounder? Where is the guidance the "little bit of encouragement" that today's young may need to find a sense of purpose?
I argue in this book that a significant part of the problem is that the phenomenon of purposelessness is not widely enough recognized by those to whom young people look for guidance. Indeed, it is not even on the radar screens of the agents of culture that influence young people mass media, schools, or civic and religious organizations. Although there is a great deal of care and concern for young people throughout our society, there is not a great deal of understanding about this issue; it is time to focus on how we can help them to discover the life purposes they are searching for.
Why does a sense of purpose matter? What does it do for young people to approach their futures with a sense of inspiration and noble aspiration? Of course, the benefits for society are not hard to see. Without a younger generation dedicated to taking up the challenges of a world that needs a lot of repairing, it is hard to imagine how a decent future can be achieved. But my primary concern in this book is not with society; it is with young people themselves. The case that I make throughout this book is that finding a clear purpose in life is essential for their achievement of happiness and satisfaction in life, and that doing so is a good deal harder than it should be in our present-day cultural environment.
What exactly do I mean by a "life purpose"? A purpose is an ultimate concern. It is the final answer to the question Why? Why are you doing this? Why does it matter to you? Why is it important? A purpose is a deeper reason for the immediate goals and motives that drive most daily behavior.
Short-term desires come and go. A young person may desire a good grade on a test, a date to the prom, a cutting edge electronic PlayStation, a starting slot on the basketball team, or admission to a prestigious college. These are desires; they reflect immediate aims that may or may not have longer-term significance. A purpose, by contrast, is an end in itself.
A person can change purposes, or add new ones, over the years; but it is in the nature of purposes to endure at least long enough that a serious commitment is made and some progress toward that aim is achieved. A purpose can organize an entire life, imparting not only meaning but also inspiration and motivation for ongoing learning and achievement.
How do we help young people find a path to purpose? The good news is that we now know enough about the value of purpose in a young person's life, as well as about how young people can develop a sense of purpose, that we can take some active steps to help steer youngsters effectively onto the path. In the next chapter, I will introduce important findings from developmental psychology and the newer field of positive psychology about how and why a sense of purpose plays such a valuable role in our lives. Chapters 3 and 4 describe results from our own studies of youth purpose. In the concluding chapters I offer some recommendations for how those who wish to help young people find positive purposes can play a constructive perhaps decisive role in getting them on their way.
Copyright © 2008 by William Damon
What People are Saying About This
The Path to Purpose is a beautiful and important book. William Damon takes on one of the most hidden and yet important elements of child development today and provides warm insight and clear advice." Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys and The Wonder of Girls
"If you are a parent, a teacher, or a policy maker, this is the book to read. Damon socks the crucial problem of our youth purposelessness right in the jaw and offers us a way out." Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness
"As a leading authority on meaning and moral development, Damon writes a timely and important book on one of our most pressing social issues how to instill a sense of purpose in the lives of children. Damon gives us a fresh and useful way to look at both education and character development." Dr. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia and Writing to Change the Worlds